Category Archives: Sauces and seasonings

Calçots, Romesco and a great start to the New Year

Every year we try to get out to Barcelona to celebrate New Year and the arrival of the Kings on January 6th… it elongates the festive season beautifully and gives us a chance to catch up with my “Barcelona Babies” (I au-paired there a shocking 30 years ago) and their wonderful family. We always  head for the hills too, to spend a few days with our friends Mercè and Jaume at their fabulous old country home El Folló in the Montseny.

Jenny Chandler calcots

I met Mercè years ago when I was researching my first book, The Food of Northern Spain, and was recommended to stay at El Folló and sample some of her fabulous cooking. We had so much in common: a love of travel, of good, honest food without the fiddley-faff and we both really enjoyed teaching. Fifteen years later and we’re very much in touch; Mercè has contributed a recipe to each of my books, brought a group of her students to Bristol and comes over on an English food quest whenever she can, whilst I’ve taken part in the El Folló bread festival, taught in Mercè’s cookery school and still try to visit every year. Above all we’re great friends and both Peter and Imi love to visit just as much as I do.

We sometimes hunt for mushrooms in the mountainous woodland  behind the house but this year a cold snap meant that there were very few to be found, so we popped down to the Saturday market in a local town, La Garriga, instead. All the usual Spanish market suspects were there (sorry for the rather random photographs, I wasn’t really in tourist mode) – the knife grinder, the stalls of slippers, pyjamas and fancy housecoats, the compulsory selection of extraordinary reinforced corsets, the rotisserie chickens and then all the other fabulous food stuff of course.

There were piles of curly endive, the salad leaf of choice at this time of year AND, more importantly, there were calçots. These look like a cross between a spring onion and a leek, but are in fact twice- planted green onions. Calçots have soil pushed up around them as they grow, cutting out the light and encouraging the long, pale and sweet stems. There was no way that we could resist the first of the season.

We rushed back home, cleaned off the worst of the dirt, trimmed the ragged tops and then lined the calçots up in the grill racks ready to go on the fire. Over the winter there’s always a fire alight in the hearth where bread, peppers and aubergines are toasted and roasted. We even collected pine cones to lay by the embers to open up in the heat and release their waxy kernels. The calçots charred and cooked over the flames and then we wrapped them in newspaper to sweat and soften.

Meanwhile we made the romesco. You couldn’t possibly consider eating calçots without romesco sauce and since you’re unlikely to be finding many of these highly prized alliums outside Catalonia you’ll be pleased to hear that this sauce is equally fab’ with asparagus, tender stem broccoli, grilled spring onions, braised leeks, prawns, squid, lamb and so the list goes on.

So here goes for the deliciously nutty sauce. There are so many versions for this sauce but Mercè’s cuts out any frying and seemed wonderfully simple, quick and very, very moreish.

Romesco Sauce (about 10 servings)
5 dried Nyora peppers
1 small dried red chilli pepper
50g blanched almonds
50g hazelnuts, skins removed
3 ripe tomatoes
4 cloves of garlic, left in skins
a handful of parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
5-6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Set the oven to 200ºC

Rip open the dried peppers and soak in warm water for 15 minutes (if you are using nyora pepper flakes as Mercè does, or just dried sweet pimetón then you can jump this stage)

Meanwhile roast the nuts until golden and just beginning to smell wonderful, and also bake the whole tomatoes and garlic cloves for about 5 -10 minutes (you’ll probably want to take the garlic out before the tomatoes – don’t let it burn or it will taste bitter).

Drain off the peppers and remove any stalks and seeds.

Now take a food processor and make a paste of the garlic and the peppers ( or add about 1 tbsp of nyora flakes or 2 heaped tsps of pimetón). Next add the nuts, the tomatoes (skin and all) and  work to a thick paste. Whizz in the parsley at the last minute.

Work in the vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and salt to taste.

The sauce is eaten at room temperature and it’s absolutely sublime. It will keep happily for a couple of days in a jar, covered with a layer of olive oil.


Should you find some calçots? Then, once they’ve softened in the newspaper it’s time for you to get your hands dirty. You simply slide the charred outer skin off the onion whist hanging on to the green top. Dip the sweet flesh into the sauce and then dangle the calçot into your mouth and munch. It’s definitely not a top menu choice for a first date…
If you really want to investigate this very Catalan, sweet onion tradition then the last weekend in January is a great time to visit Valls (near Tarragona) for the annual calçotada.

The Perfect Plum Sauce

This year’s been a bumper year for plums, and since the one and only fruit tree in our tiny garden is a Victoria, I’m very happy. We got back from our holiday in Devon to find the boughs groaning with ripe fruit and I’ve been finding ways to enjoy the glut ever since. You may not have a tree but you’re sure to have a local market or green grocer and there will be plenty of plums on offer if my local, Reg The Veg, is anything to go by.

I love a plum tart, French clafouti is another option (although Peter commented that it sounds like a  sheep’s foot disease) and plums do make a sublime ice cream too (recipe coming soon if I get around to it) but I’m always up for a bit of savoury so I’ve been in search of the very tastiest plum sauce. My favorites are the two below- I’m afraid that the jury’s out on a clear winner.

Georgian Plum Sauce – Tkemali

Let’s start with the Georgian classic Tkemali ( apparently as ubiquitous as ketchup in its homeland).  It’s quick, simple to make, has a relatively short ingredient list but more importantly it tastes heavenly. We had roast chicken legs, greens and very unorthodox mashed potato with it for supper tonight and the left overs will be great with pork or sausages.

500g plums, halved and stoned
2 tbsp soft light brown sugar, or to taste
1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
3 tbsp water
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp hot paprika (preferably Hungarian and definitely not smoked Spanish)
1 tsp coriander seeds and 1/2 tsp cumin seeds, roasted and then ground
Juice of ½ lemon, or to taste
1 tbsp chopped mint or dill
2 tbsp chopped coriander

This is pretty much a throw-it-all-in-the-pot recipe; everything goes into a saucepan bar the lemon juice and herbs.

Simmer for about 30 minutes until the plums have completely collapsed – I whizzed mine with a hand held blender too.

Season with salt and then add lemon juice and herbs to taste.

You could freeze the sauce or even pour it into sterilised jars and keep it in the fridge for a couple of weeks but there’s not enough sugar in there for it to behave as a true preserve.

Asian Spiced Plum Sauce 

I also made a batch of this most fabulous Asian-inspired plum sauce; it’s a recipe that I’ve been using for years that I originally gleaned from one of the Books for Cooks collections. I’ll let you know more about those amazing little cook books next time around but today I’ll stick to plum sauce. The sauce has evolved a little – I use palm sugar instead of caramelising sugar and often throw in some tamarind if it needs a bit more acidity. I toyed with the idea of adding some rhubarb (Ottolenghi  has some in his Plum and ginger relish) but decided that this sauce needs no help at all.

This is THE sauce  to serve with pork belly, roast duck or grilled mackerel. 

1 tbsp rapeseed or vegetable oil
1 large red onion finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2cm knob of fresh ginger finely chopped
1 fresh red chilli – or to taste, finely sliced
2 whole star anise
1/2 stick of cinnamon
2 tbsp palm sugar or soft brown sugar
50 ml water
500g plums, halved and stoned
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp roughly chopped coriander leaves

Take a large frying pan and fry the onion until soft.

Add the garlic, ginger, chilli and dry spices and cook until you’re enveloped in wonderful smells. Add the sugar and cook until dissolves, then pour in the water.

Place the plums, cut side down into the pan and simmer until tender but still intact. This will only take about 10 minutes – do take care as the plums look stunning if they hold their shape. It’s not really a sauce in texture but once you bite into those plums there will be loads of juice.

Add fish sauce to taste and, once cool, sprinkle with fresh coriander.
If the sauce seems very sweet then a good spoonful of tamarind paste makes a great addition (or a splash of vinegar would do well too)

Fish out the cinnamon stick and star anise before serving at room temperature.

Cousin Vicky's PlumsAnd just to finish up-  this beautiful little painting by my cousin Vicky Mullins, a reminder of some the delicious types of plum on offer.


Roasted Tomato Sauce

The fruit fairy came to visit last week and left us a huge basket of tomatoes.

We’re so lucky to have such lovely neighbours. Sacha is not only Imi’s favourite baby sitter, she’s also our guardian angel when it comes to guineas, fish, pot plants and sour doughs when we’re away. Sacha’s the only one who can sing along to all of Pete’s Adge Cutler tracks and then from time to time she drops in with a tray of bargain peaches, figs or tomatoes that she’s picked up for a song at the Sunday market. I, in turn, scurry up the road with pots of cooked dishes from my recipe testing for the latest book or left overs from the cooking classes. It’s a perfect arrangement.

It’s tomato season right now and if you’ve got a green house (I’m very envious) you may even begin to wonder what to do with them all. It’s the only time of year when roasting up an entire tray of fresh tomatoes for a jug of sauce doesn’t seem a ludicrous extravagance.Tomatoes ready for the oven

Roasted Tomato Sauce 

About 12 large tomatoes, cut in half equatorially
1 tbsp sugar ( I love to use light brown Muscovado)
1 heaped tsp salt
A good grind of black pepper
About 8 sprigs of fresh thyme
2-3 tbsp  olive oil

1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
salt and pepper

Put a couple of tablespoons of water into a roasting tray, just to stop the tomatoes from sticking. Lay the tomatoes in the roasting dish, cut side up, and sprinkle with the sugar, salt, pepper, oil and thyme. Roast in an oven at about 170 C/325 F for about 40 minutes until beginning to caramelise/colour in places.

You could just liquidise the lot at this point but I love the smooth texture you get if you push this through a good, old fashioned mouli-legumes (also great for mashed potatoes or extracting stock from prawn shells).

Now just fry up your onion until soft, add the garlic and cook until aromatic and then tip in the tomato puree. Season to taste.

Well -roasted tomatoes

And what to do with your sauce:

We ate some of our sauce with some simple beef meatballs, a few basil leaves and a pile of nutty bulghur wheat. Imi couldn’t keep her freckly nose out, it smelt so good.
The sauce was fabulous stirred into some cooked haricot beans (you could always use canned)
The last scrapings of the pot ended up on sourdough toast topped with some mature cheddar and flashed under the grill.
The options are endless: soup, pasta sauce, zipped up with a bit of chilli and served with sardines or mackerel.

roasted tomato sauce and meatballs

All surplus tomatoes welcome here!

Elderflower Vinegar – Chapter Two

I finally got around to straining the elderflower vinegar that I made last month. My funnel had gone walk about and so I had ample excuse to buy a very natty lime-green, rubber snail version that I’d spotted up the road. It’s fabulous because it folds flat like a concertina and so I can wedge it into my over-filled kitchen draw. It came from a great shop, Sense in Clifton, where there’s a very tempting selection of fun, culinary gadgets. In fact my vinegar ended up being quite an extravagant affair because once I’d found my snail I couldn’t resist one or two other luminous rubber must-haves for my kitchen, but more on those at a later date.

I’ve kept my elderflowers steeping in vinegar in the fridge for the last few weeks, I probably didn’t need to but it’s been so hot lately that I worried about the flowers going mouldy. Today I strained the vinegar through muslin and put it into some old bottles I had stowed away. It tastes wonderful; really floral.Green salad with Elderflower Vinegar

I’m sure that I’ll come up with some more exciting moments to use my vinegar but today I dressed a simple green salad with Arbequina olive oil (that I simply adore), the vinegar and a bit of seasoning. We ate the aromatic salad with Cumberland sausages and new potatoes, hardly gourmet but very good all the same.
I’ll definitely be making larger quantities of the vinegar next year, and plan to begin collecting up any attractive bottles in the meantime.